"I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter." - Martin LutherTo frame out the context of this discussion, a Mormon had stated, "Comments regarding Luther...and the followers of Luther...are appropriate in here when Luther actually approved of the very thing that followers of Luther are coming in here to lambaste US over." The Mormon goal is to point out "hypocrisy, double standards, 'mote and beam,' etc." In essence, as I see it, the Mormon argument is: if the polygamist finger is pointed at the Mormon church, don't ignore the fact that the same finger should also be pointed at Luther. One old Roman Catholic writer captured the heart of this controversy, "Perhaps this juxtaposition of Luther and the Mormon may be offensive to some of his friends. But we shall have the occasion to prove that Mormonism may confidently look up to Luther as a patron." On this topic, Rome's defenders have been supplying ammunition to Mormon apologists for years. We'll see below this very Luther quote came from a Roman Catholic author hostile to Luther and the Reformation.
It's easy to see why Mormons gravitate to this quote: it does indeed appear to present Luther as advocating blatant polygamy. Luther appears to be stating polygamy doesn't contradict scripture and that one should simply rely on their conscience and personal interpretation of "the word of God" to justify it. While I've been over this quote before, let's take a fresh look. We'll see that Luther was not advocating radical polygamy. We'll also see that the quote in context says something much different than the way it comes off in its propaganda form splattered all throughout cyberspace.
The quote was cited as "Luter, Martin. De Wette II, 459, ibid., pp. 329–330." The person who provided the reference said it was taken from the website of a Christian group "extolling polygamy." Perhaps it was this one? The same exact reference in the same exact form is presented.
The English form of the quote is exact to that as found in Patrick O'Hare's The Facts About Luther, minus "pp. 329-330," and it's highly probable this is where the quote, in this form, was taken from. I doubt that Father O'Hare was responsible for the English rendering, though I've not been able to identify which secondary source he took it from (his English version appears to be his solely). More often than not, Father O'Hare simply did the equivalent of a cut-and-paste from hostile sources against Luther and the Reformation. Wherever he took it from, we'll see below that O'Hare's version plays fast and loose with the context. Father O'Hare stated,
Luther was an out-and-out believer in polygamy. To say that he did not "counsel" polygamy, or that he advised that it should be kept secret as a sort of matter of "conscience," is utterly beside the facts. When Brück, the Chancellor of the Duke of Saxe-Weimer, heard that Carlstadt in 1524 advocated polygamy he consulted Luther on the new and pernicious teaching. The Reformer, not in the least abashed, openly and distinctly stated: "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter." (De Wette II, 459.) Many other clear statements wherein Luther sanctions polygamy might be reproduced here, but the one given above will suffice for the present.In regard to the first part of the reference "De Wette II, 459": Dr. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette was a Protestant scholar well-known for putting together an extensive collection of Luther's letters. Volume II:459 can be found here. The text reads,
This is the opening paragraph of a letter Luther wrote to Chancellor Gregory Brück on Jan. 27, 1524. Brück was a political figure-head (and supporter of the Reformation) in Electoral Saxony (LW 49:50). The letter does include comments about polygamy.
The second reference (not used by O'Hare) claims to be from the same De Wette volume, pointing to the earlier pages 329-330. These pages present Luther's letter to Spalatin, April 22, 1523 (the letter begins on page 329 and concludes on page 330). There is nothing though about polygamy in the letter, at all! If one does an online search for the phrase, "De Wette II, 459, ibid., pp. 329-330," you'll discover this bogus reference repeated throughout cyberspace, most notably in Wikipedia's page, Polygamy in Christianity (see footnote #38). "pp. 329-330" isn't a reference to De Wette II at all, but rather to the 1987 TAN reprint of Patrick O'Hare's The Facts About Luther, pages 329-330. Those are the pages in which Father O'Hare utilizes De Wette II, 459 and uses the quote in question.
To my knowledge, there is no official English translation of the short letter presented in De Wette II, 459. Extended sections are available, typically from hostile Roman Catholic sources. For instance, Hartmann Grisar presents it, as does Audin. The following excerpt comes from Roman Catholic writer, J. Verres, Luther, An Historical Portrait, pp. 312-313.
When in 1524 Carlstadt, then at Orlamünde, advocated polygamy, Brück, the Chancellor of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, consulted Luther on this point. The reply was that such a thing could not be considered as forbidden in the new Law. Let the prince answer: "The husband must, by the word of God, be sure and certain in his own conscience, that it is lawful to him. Let him enquire of those who can make him sure through the word of God; whether this be done by Carlstadt or by anyone else this matters not to the prince. For if the man is uncertain, he cannot become certain through the consent of the prince, who in a matter of this sort cannot decide anything. It is the duty of the priests, to answer with the word of God . . .I confess that if a man wishes to marry several wives, I cannot forbid it, nor is it in opposition to the Holy Scriptures; but I would not that such an example should be introduced amongst Christians, who ought to omit even lawful things for the sake of avoiding scandal and leading a pure life, as S. Paul demands. For it is very unbecoming to Christians, eagerly to pursue, for their own comfort, their liberty to its last consequences and yet to neglect the common and necessary duties of charity. Therefore I have not in my preaching opened this window, and I hardly believe, a Christian can be so far abandoned by God, that a man who by God's action is hindered (from the use of conjugal rights) should be unable to contain himself. But let things go where they go. Perhaps they will even introduce circumcision at Orlamünde and will become Jews entirely."
When the Latin text is consulted from De Wette II, 459, O'Hare's version is demonstrably odd. He has reversed the sentences. The first sentence actually appears further into the text ("Ego sane fateor, me non posse prohibere, si quis plures velit uxores ducere, nec repugnat sacris literis"). O'Hare's second and third sentences appear before it. O'Hare simply produced a sloppy summary of the opening of the letter, if it's his English translation at all.
But there are greater problems with O'Hare's rendering. Luther was not simply saying, as O'Hare wants his readers to believe, that a person wanting to be a bigamist needs nothing more than a certain conscience to justify it. True, Luther does say that a person wanting a second wife needs to be sure of it himself ("Oportere ipsum maritum sua propria conscientia esse firmum ac certum per verbum Dei, sibi haec licere,"). Roman Catholic writers have jumped all over this. What O'Hare and many of Rome's defenders leave out is Luther's emphasis, that the prince had no jurisdiction in such a matter because "It is the duty of the priests, to answer with the word of God." Grisar's English version renders it as "For if the fellow is not sure of his case, then the permission of the Prince will not make him so; nor is it for the Prince to decide on this point, for it is the priests business to expound the Word of God, and, as Zacharias says, from their lips the Law of the Lord must be learned. " Luther is not simply saying to look into your heart and then do what you want. He's saying that secular authority should not decide on the matter, but rather spiritual authority. This paradigm was used later by the Wittenberg theologians during the Phillip of Hesse scandal. Phillip sought permission from theological leaders to take a second wife.
After this, Luther does say "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture," but that is not the conclusion of the sentence (as O'Hare has it). He goes on to immediately say,
...but I would not that such an example should be introduced amongst Christians, who ought to omit even lawful things for the sake of avoiding scandal and leading a pure life, as S. Paul demands. For it is very unbecoming to Christians, eagerly to pursue, for their own comfort, their liberty to its last consequences and yet to neglect the common and necessary duties of charity. Therefore I have not in my preaching opened this window, and I hardly believe, a Christian can be so far abandoned by God, that a man who by God's action is hindered (from the use of conjugal rights) should be unable to contain himself. But let things go where they go.
O'Hare leaves this out entirely! Note this interesting observation from McGiffert:
Some of the radical Anabaptists undertook to introduce polygamy, appealing to the patriarchal order of society in justification of their position. Even among Luther's followers and associates there was no little uncertainty about the matter, as was not altogether surprising when the old order of things was undergoing revision at so many points, including the marriage of monks, priests, and near relatives. But Luther himself was unalterably opposed to any such revolution. Monogamy he considered, under ordinary circumstances, alone tolerable in a Christian community, and held that no Christian ruler has any moral right to legalize polygamy. At the same time, finding no explicit prohibition in the Bible, he believed exceptions might be allowed in certain extreme cases such as are now generally recognized in Protestant countries as justifying divorce. Writing Chancellor Bruck about the matter in 1524, he said: I confess I am not able to forbid anybody to take more than one wife if he wishes to do so, nor do the sacred Scriptures forbid him. But I do not want this custom introduced among Christians, for it behooves them to give up things which are permitted, that scandal may be avoided and honorable living promoted, as Paul everywhere demands.
When O'Hare states, "Luther was an out-and-out believer in polygamy" he either grossly ignored the context, or perhaps never saw the context. Rome's defender Hartmann Grisar explained the situation which provoked the letter was the sickness of a wife preventing "matrimonial intercourse." One must not immediately place this situation in a 21st century context. Offspring in the sixteenth century were of vital importance. Luther's response was not an all out anything goes. Rather, the comment was directed to an exception (For more on the "exception," see my earlier blog article). It is true Luther allowed for polygamy, but only in a very narrow sense. Heinrich Boehmer points out that it was only to be in cases of,
...severe necessity, for instance, if the wife develops leprosy or becomes otherwise unfit to live with her husband… But this permission is always to be restricted to such cases as severe necessity. The idea of legalizing general polygamy was far from the reformers mind. Monogamy was always to him the regular form of matrimony… (Luther And The Reformation in Light of Modern Research, 213-214).This radical comment from Luther under scrutiny here was prompted by Luther's ex-colleague, Carlstadt. Carlstadt condoned a man taking a second wife. Von Ranke says of Carlstadt,
His rash and confused mind led him entirely to confound the national with the religious element of the Old Testament. Luther expected that before long circumcision would be introduced at Orlamunde [where Carlstadt was preaching], and thought it necessary seriously to warn the elector against attempts of this nature [source].After Carlstadt had become increasingly radical, he left Wittenberg's faculty. Carlstadt went to Orlamunde in the Thuringian countryside, right around the time this letter from Luther was written (Jan. 27, 1524). The interesting thing about the quote in question is that by this time, Luther had a grave distrust of Carlstadt, yet in this letter Luther states, "it is the priests business to expound the Word of God." The way I read it, Luther is saying that secular authorities are not to interpret the Bible on this point. Rather, it is the job of spiritual authorities. For better or for worse, Carlstadt was the spiritual authority in Orlamunde. Early in 1524 the Wittenberg faculty took steps in attempting to recall Carlstadt from Orlamunde in order to try to curb his radical nature. They still held out some sort of hope that he wasn't too far gone in his radical leanings. The bigger point for Luther was not bigamy as such, but that secular authorities didn't have jurisdiction to interpret the Bible.
Was Luther the "patron saint" of Mormon polygamy? Hardly. While one could disagree with Luther's exception in regard to bigamy or while one could easily say Luther was wrong to even offer an exception, it's simply historically inaccurate to say Luther supported bigamy or polygamy in a Mormon sense. Had a Mormon defender read this quote in context, the difficulty in squaring Luther's view with their view is easily seen.
I think it's ridiculous for Mormon apologists to use Luther on this issue. They paint him as some sort of all out polygamist, where, as I've studied it, Luther's dabbling in polygamy was typically hypothetical and cautioned, or out right denied. True, Luther got himself into mess with the scandal of Phillip of Hesse, but even in that, he was reluctant to authorize the bigamous relationship Phillip wanted. It wasn't like he was looking to allow Phillip to have a good time with two wives. When the entire situation was exposed, Phillip's supporters began writing books defending polygamy. Luther then wrote things like, "Anyone following this fellow and his book and takes more than one wife, and thinks that this is right, the devil will prepare for him a bath in the depths of hell. Amen" (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther the Preservation of the Church Vol. 3 1532-1546 , p. 214).